By Tim Rowland
An old Adirondack war wound of mine is a situationally painful left wrist through which I can not only predict the weather, but tell barometric pressure, elevation and the volume of trading on the stock market in Brussels.
It was earned descending the old Ranger Trail of Poke-O-Moonshine Mountain around 2007, when my feet went out from under me on the unstable ground, and all my corn-fed heft landed square on the aforementioned joint.
“It was the classic fire tower trail,” said David Thomas-Train, as he and Explorer photographer Mike Lynch and I hiked the new-look Ranger Trail. “The old route just went straight up the drainage — it was a horrible trail.”
Poke-O, in the Taylor Pond Wild Forest, is a grand mountain, as described in 1843 by abolitionist Abel Brown:
“There is a place in Essex Co. called “Poc O moonshine,” where you pass directly along the base of a mass of rocks, about eight hundred feet high: five hundred of the space is solid ledges, with not a place sufficient width to stand upon, and during a clear moonlight night is beyond description grand, and from its mighty summit the view is not only sublime but beautiful in the extreme.”
The Ranger Trail, which begins in the abandoned campground at the foot of the mountain, had largely been bypassed by the more civilized Observers Trail, which starts further to the south and follows the old access road to the fire tower caretaker’s cabin.
In fact, the state Department of Environmental Conservation considered closing the Ranger Trail a decade ago and it would have been perfectly justifiable, said David, who heads up a Poke-O-Moonshine friends group of about 400 members, which works on trail improvements, leads outings and staffs a summer summit steward program.
But amidst talk of its closure, the group wanted to preserve some semblance of the historic trail, which has appealing features that the Observers Trail lacks, including dramatic looks at the shriekingly high cliffs for which Poke-O is famous.
Volunteers began to shore up the trail in 2013, but soon it became apparent that bigger guns were called for, including professional trailbuilders from the Adirondack Mountain Club, the Student Conservation Corps and Tahawus Trails. “They each did what they were good at; it was great teamwork,” David said.
Through grants and donations, more than $300,000 has been raised by the friends group for the project. The result is a work of art, a Stonehengian pathway that might just qualify as the Eighth Wonder of the Adirondacks.
Early on, it meanders through a boulder field populated with bedroom-sized chunks of rock that some time ago lost purchase from the cliffs above and must have come crashing down in a way that would have attracted considerable interest from anyone standing down below.
Then begins a marvelous set of stone staircases, the rock steps tucked so neatly into existing ledges and slabs that they almost seem a natural part of the topography. On the way up, we came across a team from Tahawus, these surgeons in stone who create these marvels.
A couple of overlooks in this first leg peer vertically down on the Northway and laterally to a profile of the awesome Poke-O cliffs.
If you know where to look, you can see remnants of the old trail, which will add to your appreciation of the new. Still muddy, rooty and rocky after all these years, it leers from beneath a veneer of autumn leaves, as if beckoning to do a number on my other wrist.
A set of wooden stairs leads to my favorite part of the trail, which David said was the brainchild of forester Dan Levy. It flows musically along lichen-covered rock slabs and through a mixed forest, its floor carpeted with leaves the color and texture of hammered copper, with emerald ferns and grasses glowing in the late-morning sun.
It’s from here you can first start catching glimpses of the tower high above the ravine on your right. This leg brings you to a lean-to and the foundation of the old caretaker’s cabin.
The last piece of the trail puzzle was an eroded rock scramble up to the flat top of the mountain and its tower. This has now been fitted with steps and rerouted along a new section of trail that loops to the west before rejoining the old trail near the tower.
In all, the improvements added a half mile to the trail, which now clocks in at 1.5 miles, and is worth every step. The views from the tower, of course, remain as fetching as always, looking east to Lake Champlain, north to Canada, west to Whiteface and south to the higher peaks.
The old trail down from the top of the mountain to the caretaker’s cabin still exists in a fashion, although it is difficult to find. Out of nostalgia, I took it back down through a hairy, narrow chimney, which was fun-ish but, OK, not real smart considering it was filled with a slippery stew of leaves, mud, water and ice.
Still, the contrast between the old way and new way of trail building was compelling. I won’t take the old route again, though. I only have two wrists.